Kate Schafer: A Day in the Life… September 29, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Kate Schafer

Aboard NOAA Ship Oregon II

September 17 – 30, 2017


Mission: Shark/Red Snapper Longline Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Gulf of Mexico

Date: September 29, 2017

Weather Data from the Bridge:

Latitude: 29o 11.3′ N
Longitude: 88o 18.3′ W

Few clouds

Visibility 10 nautical miles

Wind speed 8 knots

Sea wave height 1 foot

Temperature Seawater 29.4 o Celsius

Science and Technology Log:

So, as my time on the Oregon II is winding down, I thought I’d share a bit about what it is like to do science on a boat.  First of all, there is a tremendous amount of planning that must go into a successful survey in the weeks and months beforehand.  In addition to all the logistics of going to sea for two weeks, there is the challenge of putting together a crew of scientists that can be away from their day to day jobs and lives, and agree to work 12 hour days, for weeks on end.  Lisa Jones is the Field Party Chief for this survey and must figure out those logistics plus organize the science part as well.  This survey has been going since 1995, and one of the keys to longitudinal data sets is that they keep standard methods throughout, or else the data aren’t comparable.

This can be challenging in all sorts of unforeseen ways.  For example, a few years ago, it became difficult to find the mackerel used as bait on the longlines.  During an experimental survey in the spring, they tried out squid as an alternative and caught a totally different composition of species.  Fortunately, the mackerel became more available again, and the problem is no longer an issue, for now.

Hooks baited with mackerel

Lisa is also the one responsible for working with the captain and his crew to determine sampling locations and a plan for getting to those locations.  There’s a plan at the beginning, but, of course, that changes frequently, due to weather, the locations of other ships and a myriad of other unforeseen circumstances.  The goal is to reach 200 sites per year, with 50% between 5-30 fathoms (1 fathom=6 feet), 40% between 30-100 fathoms, and 10% between 100-200 fathoms.  These percentages reflect the depths of the continental shelf area throughout the sampling region. Below is a sampling map for the 2015 longline survey.

Sampling stations for 2015 Longline survey from 2015 Cruise report

During a longline set, the line is deployed for one hour before retrieval, with 100 baited hooks.  As the line comes in, each fish is given three to four measurements (depending on the species) and is weighed.  Many of the sharks are tagged, as this provides the possibility of someone finding the tagged shark in the future.  With a tag retrieval, we can learn about how far the organism has traveled and how much and how quickly it has grown.

Shark Cradling team_Shark LL SEP2017
Measuring and tagging shark in the cradle

As I mentioned in my post about the red snappers, the snappers, groupers and tilefish are dissected for their otoliths and gonads.  They can’t be successfully released in most circumstances anyway, due to barotrauma from pulling them quickly to the surface from depth.

A Yellowedge Grouper weighing nearly 20 kg

Sharks are less affected by barotrauma because they don’t have swim bladders to maintain their buoyancy like the bony fishes we’ve been catching.

Caught on the longline

Here are a couple examples of our data sheets.  As you can see, some sets have more fish than others (in fact the full one, was only one of three pages).  Once all the data are collected, they have to be entered in the computer for later summary and analysis.  Some days it can be a big challenge to get all the data entered before it’s time to start all over again.  Other days, like today, include lots of travel time.

Only a tilefish on this set…


Many more on this one…in fact this is only one of three pages


Personal Log:

Tiger shark filling the 10 foot cradle

For me, it has been truly wonderful to get to work as a scientist again, if just for a couple of weeks, especially with such an amazing group of scientists.  I’ve learned so much from my fellow day crew members (Lisa, Christian, Nick and Jason).  They have patiently answered all my questions, even when it was keeping them from getting to dinner.  Lisa Jones has gone above and beyond in her support of me, even though she has had many other responsibilities on her plate.  I also appreciate being made to feel welcome lurking around the night crew’s catches.  Thanks especially to Christophe, Vaden, and Eric for allowing me to hang out in the measuring pit.  I love my job as a teacher, but part of me definitely misses working as a field biologist.  I am grateful for the opportunity and especially thankful for my wonderful family.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your support and love.


Mary Ann Penning, July 17, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Mary Ann Penning
Onboard NOAA Ship Albatross IV
July 9 – 20, 2007

Mission: Sea Scallop Survey
Geographical Area: North Atlantic Ocean
Date: July 17, 2007

Weather Data from the Bridge 
Visibility: 4 nautical miles (nm)
Wind direction: 278 degrees
Wind speed: 6 knots (kts)
Sea wave height: 1 foot
Swell wave height: 3 feet
Seawater temperature: 25.2 degrees C
Sea level pressure: 1017.1 millibars (mb)
Air Temperature: 24.9 degrees C
Cloud cover: hazy

Dvora Hart is counting astropectin, a type of sea star (also called starfish), for sampling.
Dvora Hart is counting astropectin, a type of sea star (also called starfish), for sampling.

Science and Technology Log 

For a person who has rarely eaten scallops, I’m really getting an up close and personal look into the lives of these mollusks.  Dr. Deborah, aka Dvora, Hart is our resident scallops’ expert traveling and working on this trip. She has studied scallops for eight years and travels internationally speaking on behalf of scallops everywhere. She is an intermediary between the science side of scallops and with the fishermen and the fishing industry. While incorporating her mathematics background, she works closely with our Chief Scientist Victor Nordahl developing these surveys. Talking with her over the course of the trip and just listening to her wealth of knowledge have taught me a lot about scallops in such a short time.  She is passionate about scallops and knowledgeable about other organisms that we saw on the trip. In a nutshell or should I say “in a scallop shell”, I’ll share what I’ve learned about scallops in just a little less than two weeks.

Scallops have been around for millions of years.  Five to ten million years ago, in the Chesapeake Bay area, there used to be a shallow sea.  Much later, scallop fossils, found by Indians living in this area, were used for bowls.  In fact Virginia’s state fossil is a scallop measuring up to 200 mm, named Chesapecten jeffersonius, obviously named after Thomas Jefferson.  I didn’t even know there were state fossils!

These sea stars, also known as starfish, are classified as Astropecten americanus.
These sea stars, also known as starfish, are classified as Astropecten americanus.

Sea scallops like living in about 40 – 80 meters of water in the Mid-Atlantic. It is neither too warm in the summer nor too cold in the winter at these ocean depths for them to develop. In deeper water, one of their nemesis, Astropecten americanus, a type of starfish, will eat the baby scallops whole. (There are over 100 different species of Astropecten around the world.) Scallops swim, eat phytoplankton, and spawn when their food source is higher in the spring and fall.  They can range in size from a few centimeters to 15 centimeters from their hinge to their tip. The family of scallops includes our Atlantic Sea Scallops, (called Giant Scallops in Canada), Bay Scallops, and Calico Scallops.

In the US, the scallop industry wholesale at the dock brings in about $400 million dollars, while the retail value is worth about $800 million.  All fisheries in the northeast bring in about 1.2 billion dollars and scallops and lobsters are responsible for about one third each, while all other fish comprise the other third.  Full time scalloping permits can range in the three to four million dollar range; one can somewhat understand why these permits would be highly desirable. There are a limited number available.

In 1998, only 12 million pounds of sea scallops were caught in the U.S.  Since 2002, they have been bringing in over 50 million pounds each year.  Why the change?  Part of it is skill, part of it is good luck, but the main reason is that areas were closed for three years to allow the baby scallops to grow to bigger sizes.  In some of our surveyed areas that have been open to harvesting scallops, we have seen fewer and smaller scallops.  In Elephant Trunk, which just opened for scallop fishing in March, we have generally seen more scallops which are bigger. Data collected over time by surveys such as this one have supported the closings and reopening of areas.

This sea scallop survey is collecting data about sea scallops and other species to manage the sea scallop fishery properly in the southern part of the range of sea scallops. Our trip has spanned from New Jersey to the tip of North Carolina and back again. We have targeted underwater areas such as Hudson Canyon, Elephant Trunk, and a station on the edge of Norfolk Canyon to name just a few.  The NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service manages the area from 3 miles to 200 miles across the continental shelf.  The waters from shore to three miles out are managed by the various states and operate under different rules. The restrictions for scallop fishing are managed by a fishery management board comprised of 19 representatives from various states.

Scallop boats are allowed to retrieve about one fourth of the total scallops a year.  If they catch more than that, they fish out too many of the big ones in an area. If they catch too few a year, more will die from natural causes.  It takes about four years to deplete an area of scallops. (The four inch rings in their dredges allow smaller scallops to escape.)

My interview with Dvora has spanned the entire cruise.  As we have asked questions, whether kneeling in the pile on the fantail or in the workrooms or at the dinner table, she has been generous with her information and we have become more aware and knowledgeable about scallops and their economic impact on the US.

Scientists in front of the NOAA map showing the location of the scallop sampling stations.
Scientists in front of the NOAA map showing the location of the scallop sampling stations.

Personal Log 

Thinking back over the trip, there have been some exciting highlights.  Three that come to mind are the following.  I finally went up to the bridge, about 1:00 AM one morning to see how the operations are run at night. I had been up there during the day and so I was familiar with the equipment during the daylight.  I walked into a quiet, dark room with only red lights showing. (I understand they don’t destroy your night vision.)  The side doors were open and a cool breeze was coming in.  It was hazy outside; I thought I couldn’t see any stars, something I had hoped to see.  The officer in charge said to look straight up and there were definitely some stars to see.  He helped me find the big dipper through the haze.  After craning my neck for awhile, I stepped to the starboard side and I found Cassiopeia, like a big, wide “W” in the sky.  He brought out a star chart to help me identify the constellations. Even though I was tired, it was definitely worth staying up a little later than usual.

Another job I learned how to do was check the inclinometer when the dredge came up on deck. (I had to wear a hard hat for safety.) It is a device which checks the dredge’s towing efficiency. A hand held wand type device transfers information from the inclinometer, which is stored in a protective steel tube at the top of the dredge.  Once back in the workroom, I would download the information onto a computer and print out a copy in graph form.  We could see from the graph if the dredge flipped when it went into the water. If it did, then we would have to turn around and retow.  This happened only twice that I am aware of during the entire trip.  The Chief Scientist ultimately analyzes all the data.

And I learned how to shuck a scallop! We could shuck scallops for the galley in our down time if the scallops came from an open area.  I’ve had them smoked, baked, sautéed, and even raw, marinated in special sauces.  Not that I’m a connoisseur now, but I’ve certainly learned to enjoy them.

Questions of the Day 

Estimate how many miles we will have traveled on our entire trip.  Remember we have zigzagged on our course from Woods Hole to the southern end of Virginia and back.  We left Woods Hole on the afternoon of July10th and we will be returning at 7:00 AM on Friday, July 20th.

How many gallons of diesel fuel does the ship hold? The ALBATROSS IV is a 187 foot long vessel with a breadth of 33 feet, and a draft of 17 feet 3 inches.  (It displaces 1115 tons of water.)

How does the ship get fresh water?

Mary Ann Penning, July 15, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Mary Ann Penning
Onboard NOAA Ship Albatross IV
July 9 – 20, 2007

Mission: Sea Scallop Survey
Geographical Area: North Atlantic Ocean
Date: July 15, 2007

Weather Data from the Bridge 
Visibility: 4 nautical miles(nm)
Wind direction: 196 degrees
Wind speed: 59 knots (kts)
Sea wave height: 2 feet
Swell wave height: not available
Seawater temperature: 24.3 degrees C
Sea level pressure: 1013.2 millibars (mb)
Air Temperature: 25.1 degrees C
Cloud cover: partly cloudy, hazy

Penning at the Limnoterra Boards (measuring boards) measuring the length of a goose fish caught along with the scallops in the dredge.
Penning at the Limnoterra Boards (measuring boards) measuring the length of a goose fish caught along with the scallops in the dredge.

Science and Technology Log 

We have traveled along the continental shelf of the eastern seaboard since we set sail from Woods Hole almost a week ago. The route of the ship zigzags from one location to another, visiting previously selected underwater stations, where scallop and fish specimens are collected. Some areas are in shallower water than others and some have been closed to commercial fishermen, while others have just recently opened.  NOAA maps showing these locations are posted in our workroom outside the fantail (rear deck of the ship where we work) along with charts showing the distance between the tows.  The NOAA officer on the bridge works in tandem with the three skilled fishermen who control the dredge equipment – the gantry and the winch.  We wait for 15 minutes while the dredge is towed over an area approximately 4500 square meters.  The ALBATROSS IV is working nonstop. The teamwork is incredible!

Before the sorting begins, the pile dumped from the dredge is photographed with location information.
Before the sorting begins, the pile dumped from the dredge is photographed with location information.

When the dredge is opened on deck, it is amazing what we find.  Usually eight of us, on hands and knees, sort a pile that can be about eight by six feet wide and about one to two feet high. It’s like playing in a sand pile looking for hidden treasure.  Sometimes the pile is somewhat dry and packed with sand and rusty red sand dollars that camouflage the scallops. Sometimes the catch seems to be wet and slimy and filled with nothing but astropectin, the starfish that gobble the baby scallops whole.  As a result there are very few adult scallops in that area. At one station it was projected that there were about 30,000 astropecten. That would be about five per square meter.  And if we took into account the ones that we missed, there could be approximately ten per square meter.  When we first entered an area named Elephant Trunk, recently opened in March, the pile dumped from the dredge seemed nothing but scallops.  The catch was very clean and we just shoveled them into baskets.  At another station we measured 792 scallops.  Expanding on the sampling size with a special formula, it was determined that there were 7,920 scallops at this location.  Imagine the economic value of this one station alone.

Mixed in with the haul can be a variety of other organisms such as crabs, starfish, little skates, goose fish with their big mouth and ugly teeth, various sizes of four spotted flounder, and sea mice with their spiny edges. Usually we find a variety of hakes: red, spotted or silver, (commercially known as whiting). These fish seem to “hang around” scallops. We collect and count the fish and crabs, too, at some points.  At one such “crab station” I counted 146 crabs.  I’m getting a “hands on” course in fish and scallops.

After sorting scallops into round, laundry type plastic baskets and fish into separate buckets, the residue is shoveled into baskets and accounted for too.  Using various sampling techniques, it is determined how many scallops or baskets of scallops will be weighed and measured on three sophisticated, computerized measuring devices.  But still everything has to be done by hand. Age and growth samples on five scallops are taken at various sites which are packaged and taken back to the lab to be evaluated.  At one site we analyzed 60 scallops for age and growth. The rings on scallops are analogous to tree rings. After cleaning our equipment with hoses spraying sea water, we’re ready for the next station. All these techniques are employed about once an hour around the clock for an expected total of 200 stations. That’s a lot of scientific data for someone to analyze.

Personal Log 

Where can someone spend their “down time” on a cruise like this?  While waiting for the catch to come in, most of us like to sit around the Chief Scientist’s office or the similar space across the hall.  It’s close to the fantail where we do most of our work.  I like to read if I only have a few minutes.  I finished Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone this way. I brought a laptop computer with me and I finally realized I could work on my logs from there.  A lounge upstairs, where you can watch satellite TV or movies, provides ample entertainment.  In that same area is the computer room where we can e-mail from the ship, however no internet is available.  Occasionally, I like to go to the galley for a snack which, fortunately or unfortunately, is right down the hallway from our workspace.  Fresh fruit is available, along with cereal and popsicles or ice cream.  There may be leftover dessert from dinner, too.  Our rooms are downstairs one level, but as a courtesy to those sleeping from the opposite watch, we don’t enter our rooms then.  Sometimes I like to go out and just look at the water. There was a sliver of a moon last night with the planet Venus peering over it.  That was an awesome sight!

Questions of the Day 

How big can scallops grow? What is their habitat like?  Why is this data on scallops collected?  Who or what benefits from this labor intensive work?  Join me in my next log as I discuss these important mollusks with Dr. Dvora Hart, a scallops’ expert, participating in our scientific survey.

Karen Meyers & Alexa Carey, August 18, 2006

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Karen Meyers & Alexa Carey
Onboard NOAA Ship Albatross IV
August 15 – September 1, 2006

Mission: Ecosystem Monitoring
Geographical Area: Northeast U.S.
Date: August 18, 2006

Science and Technology Log 

I visited the bridge this morning and plan to go back again for another visit because there’s so much to learn there. There’s an amazing amount of equipment up there and Captain Steve Wagner made an attempt to explain some of it to me.  There are two radar units of different frequencies. The higher frequency unit is a 3 cm unit (I assume 3 cm is the wavelength) and has greater resolution so it can be used when entering harbors, for instance.  The other is a 10 cm unit that can cover a larger area.  They have to have two of every instrument in case one malfunctions.  They have the same program – NobelTec – as Jerry uses. It shows the charts for all the areas we are cruising through.  On the chart, our course is plotted and every station is marked with a square that becomes a star when you click on it. The ship appears as a little green, boat-shaped figure that the program calls the SS Minnow (after the boat in Gilligan’s Island).  The program can tell you the distance to the next station and the ETA (estimated time of arrival) as well as the time to reach the station.  You can zoom in or out and scroll around. It shows depths in fathoms.  The program works with a GPS unit to monitor position.  On another monitor, they get online weather information.  The site on the screen had a graphic which shows the area we’re heading into marked all over with the little icons used in weather maps to show wind speed and direction. It was easy to see the low-pressure system which I’d heard was weakening off the coast of South Carolina.  They also get weather data through a little machine called a NAVTEX (Navigational Telex), similar to a FAX, that prints out a continuous strip of paper about 4 inches wide and gives weather data for various segments of the coast, e.g., Fenwick Island to Cape Hatteras or Cape Hatteras to Murrells Inlet. The information comes from stations at several points along the coast.  The machine checks the accuracy as it prints out and gives an error rate at the top right.  If it’s too high, it stops and starts over. I can sympathize with Captain Wagner when he talks about how difficult it is to keep up with the new technology.  I feel the same way as a teacher. The big difference is that he has lives in his hands.  At the same time, he adds that the technology available makes his job much easier.

Personal Log – Alexa Carey 

Dolphins…enough said. The most amazing thing is seeing a massive pod of dolphins riding the wake less than 25 feet directly below you.  Tamara, Karen, Barbara, Jerry and I all clambered around the bow of the deck desperately snapping photos and avoiding wet paint as we safely peered over the edge. ENS Chris Daniels spied several areas with dolphins and flying fish and quickly pointed every spot out as he tried many different ways to get our attention.

We did another EPA station, which we do every five stations.  A great many of the crew joined us after our shift to play a game of ‘Set’; there were about 8 people pulling, pushing, and looking either dazed or confused at the visual card game.  I’ve been learning a lot about life on the East Coast and oceanography from Carly Blair, URI graduate student, while she sunbathed outside on the Hurricane deck.  Many activities occur out on the Hurricane deck like exercising on several of the available machines, sunbathing, whale watching, etc. It’s good to know that we still have our fun after working shift.

The two people who I admire extremely at this point are Don Cobb and Jon Hare, both East Coast natives. They are so knowledgeable on every subject that arises and work probably more than 18 hours a day.  Don came out to teach Barbara and me the procedures for each test and he spent an extra shift answering all questions and supervising our actions. Jerry taught me most of the computer and paperwork, and I was pretty confused for a while. Later that night, I sat in with Jon as he ran everything.  Every step of the way, he’d pause and explain how the system works and how to operate it. It’s something I appreciate beyond words.

I can’t believe how many great people are concentrated into such a small area.  I just don’t want to head home soon.

Personal Log – Karen Meyers 

I agree with Alexa – the dolphins were inspiring!  It’s amazing that they can swim faster than the ship – twice as fast, according to Jon.  I feel like I’m getting to know the people on the ship better and they’re an entertaining bunch.  They work so hard – Tim Monaghan just told us that someone figured out that a mariner works 7 years longer in a lifetime than an onshore worker because they work round the clock 7 days a week.  It makes my life seem awfully easy by comparison!